In the Hands
Paul Cantrell’s music
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Category: 19th century

Chopin Preludes 4 and 9 (as a pair)

Visiting the house of my composer friend Matthew Smith (who has an outstanding CD out now, by the way), I noticed the score to Chopin’s E minor prelude out on the piano. It turns out that his wife, children’s book illustrator and author Lauren Stringer, is taking piano lessons, and she has been working on it. I was delighted — the piece is a favorite of mine. I dug out my recording of it for her to hear…

Bach Sinfonia 5 and Schumann Bunte Blätter 6 (as a pair)

As I went through some old recordings, I found that these two make a nice pair. Arranging nice little transitions like this is one of my favorite parts of doing a concert. It’s the same little pleasure as assembling a mix CD or playing DJ: even the simple act of ordering songs is a kind of composition, and carries the joy of being creative.

The keys of the two pieces (E flat and A flat) are related and make for a smooth transition, but beyond that, it’s hard to pin down what exactly connects them so well. The deliberate, thoughtful way both unfold? The way both of them seem to talk?…

Bach
Cantrell
Schumann
Cantrell

Schubert Impromptu D899.4, played by Don Betts

This is a very familiar piece (to piano aficionados, anyway) — but you’ll find Don’s performance a little refreshingly unfamiliar. It’s not a wild departure from custom, but there’s just a subtle tip in the balance in his performance that makes the feeling of the piece quite different.

In the last entry I mentioned the question of foreground and background. When most pianists play this piece, they put the right hand squarely in the foreground: what you hear is a series of speedy cascades down, a fun bit of finger gymnastics. But when Don plays it, he balances…

Schubert D946.1, played by Don Betts

I’m a fellow of diverse musical tastes, and there are a great many composers I love who don’t appear in the meager list over on the right of this page. So it’s a delight to post this recording, because I get to add a “Schubert” category. Yay for Schubert!

This is another one of the recordings I made in the living room of my teacher, Don Betts. He’s playing a little gem of Schubert’s that one doesn’t hear often — in fact, I’d never heard it at all until he played it for me. When I looked up some recordings by others, I was surprised to find that most people play it very fast, even

Schumann Arabesque, played by Don Betts

In the Hands is primarily for my own recordings, but today I have a special exception to make: over the summer, I recorded Don Betts, my piano teacher, playing in his home. Don has made a great many excellent recordings over the years — including the Chopin album available on this web site — but these recordings we made in his living room are something entirely different. They have a special kind of magic about them. The Chopin album was recorded in a concert hall, and it has a concert hall feeling: it’s Don the performer, playing a big piano in a…

Schumann
Betts

Chopin Ballade No. 3

I wrote recently about the the danger that virtuosity can make us neglect the virtues of simplicity, and even neglect the music itself. That is true not only of a simple masterpiece like the prelude I was talking about, but also of technically difficult pieces — such as the Chopin ballades.

In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress…

Chopin Prelude 4

To conclude this trip down prelude memory lane (at least for the time being), here is the veeery first piece I worked on with Don Betts. I’ve actually hardly played this one since that first year of lessons, but I found it came back quickly. Is playing a piece like riding a bicycle? Maybe a little.

Don always gives this one to his beginner students. At the time, although I’d had piano lessons for many years as a child, and had recently played piano in a dixie band, I was still really a beginner in many ways. I’d brought Louis Lortie’s recording of…

Chopin Prelude 20

As long as I’m on this Chopin prelude kick….

This piece is easy to sink one’s teeth into, I think, very dramatic and engaging on the first listen. But subsequent digging reveals a lot of subtlety in the way the different voices move, the modulation and chromaticism, the emotional shape. It has a fascinatingly unusual structure: many piece start softly and work to a crescendo, but this one starts loud and fades to a whisper. Many pieces in binary form have an initial section that’s repeated twice (AAB) — like

Chopin Prelude 6

We live in a time of superhuman performers. The stars of the classical piano world do things that hardly seem humanly possible — certainly that are far beyond me — and people love it, demand it. It’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it’s amazing to hear the most difficult works performed with such ability; on the other hand, the emphasis on the performer, the great cult of the virtuoso, can make us forget about the music itself. Should hearing a piece of music be like watching somebody juggle 9 bowling balls on a tightrope, or like embracing an old friend?

It is often true of the composers…

Chopin Prelude 9

An old favorite, brought from the past to the present for your listening enjoyment.

I love the steady outpouring of energy, the unbrokenness of the flow as it goes through such a dramatic series of changes, the perfect balance of the different sections, the tremendous sense of scope of this mere 95 seconds, a single printed page of music. Chopin is totally my hero.

Esoteric Musicological Aside

There’s an interesting controversy about this piece: in certain places, Chopin notated the melody as dotted eighth + sixteenth…

Bach WTC Book 1 Prelude 1, à la Hewitt

As long as we’re conducting experiments on the familiar C major prelude…

Some years ago, Don and I heard Angela Hewitt play a marvelous concert of Bach and Messiaen. (There’s a combination!) She gave the most unusual performance of the C major prelude I’ve ever heard: very fast, very light, either a bit of pedal or just a superhuman legato (don’t remember which), and certain notes voiced to give the rapid…

Bach WTC Book 1 Prelude 1, à la Hendrix

So here’s the deal with the mystery recording (Ahree got it right):

It is, of course, a familiar Bach prelude. I learned to play the piece backwards — that is, playing the notes in reverse order — recorded it that way, then reversed the recording. Got it? So even though you hear the strange sound of backwards piano, growing instead of decaying, the notes come in the right order. Here’s what I actually played — and here’s the final backward-is-foward result again:…

A ridiculous surprise

Here’s an amusing little idea Joel and I came up with while talking on the phone. Why did I do this, you ask? Because it’s the internet. Because I can.

The first one to figure out what’s going on here gets … um, actually I don’t have a prize. Sorry. Still, try to figure it out!

If you want the full surprise effect, play the song without looking at the title.

Brahms Waltz Op 39 No 15

At the New Year’s Eve party my family has been attending for the last … oh, at least 20 years, we have a tradition of doing waltzes. By “doing,” I don’t much mean dancing — sadly, only a few brave souls do that — but playing them, since it’s a musical crowd and it’s easy to form a pickup group. (It’s another instance of the sort of informal playing together, not playing for, that I wrote about in Comparing Notes.) Waltzes for the new year are a tradition our hosts imported from Austria…

Chopin Etude 25.1

The word “étude” means study — a practice piece, designed to exercise a particular technique. Études for musicians are generally dry, repetitious pieces, not music to perform, but just exercises for practice. So Chopin’s choice of that title may seem a little understated, or even ironic: his études certainly do exercise one’s technique, but they are expressive, poetic, passionate, and anything but dry.

I think the title fits beautifully: shouldn’t learning always be this way?

An interesting aspect of the piece I work to bring…

Brahms Ballade 10.4

I’ve been meaning to record this one for a long time.

Brahms
Cantrell

This is one of those mysterious and introspective pieces like Chopin’s nocturne 15.3 that has a strange logic all its own. It’s low and, even in the crescendos, somehow hushed throughout. There’s not a trace of virtuosic flashiness in it; it’s definitely not a piece that’s about the pianist. The way it unfolds is … well, a nice fellow from Paris named Frank who emailed me about piano recording, and who is also learning to play it, said it well…

Bach Invention 6

I love the word “invention” — it may capture what’s going on in the pieces of music it names better than any title I know of. What’s this? It’s just an idea, a creative spark. Bach has fun, and he’s sharing.

Just an idea: one scale coming up, one going down, alternating steps. And from that idea, a little world unfolds.

Bach
Cantrell

Chopin F minor Fantasy (introduction)

Here’s a preview of a piece I’m working on — this is the march that opens Chopin’s Fantasty. The whole piece is quite an epic (about 14 minutes), and rather difficult, so I’m not going to be posting the whole thing in the near future.

This opening, however, is neither so long nor so difficult, and so I’m posting a rough version of it as a little appetizer. It almost stands as a little piece on its own, but right where I stop in this recording, instead of winding to a close, the music takes off full throttle.

In the future…

Chopin Waltz 34.2

Today’s recording brings In the Hands over the one hour mark: since I started this blog at the end of August, it’s brought over 65 minutes of free piano music to the web. Yay!

This recording also marks a more dubious milestone: for the first time I’m late with the post (it just turned Wednesday in Minnesota as I type this). I’m not sure anyone cares, or even notices, but I do try to keep myself honest with this Tuesday/Saturday plan.

Chopin can get very complex, virtuosic, or just generally full of big piano sounds. But always…

Brahms Intermezzo 117.2

When I first saw the sheet music for today’s piece, I was a bit boggled. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a piece that sounded less like it looked! You might figure it for some sort of virtuosic toccata thing, all flash and texture, but no, it is slow, minimal melody with a lush, dark accompaniment.

The notation makes a little more sense if you think of Bach’s preludes. Do I grow predictable claiming everything is full of Bach? Very well, I grow predictable. This one is full of Bach: the layering; the figuration…

Brahms
Cantrell

Chopin Nocturne 15.3

One of the most fundamental, most important principles in music is return: when things happen, they come back. Throughout a piece of music, there are recurring elements that unite the whole. The beginning and the end connect. If we depart from where we started, we return there — or at least look back.

The familiar verse / chorus / bridge form that underlies so many pop songs follows this principle: we might get a new melody, the bridge (“Why she had to leave, I don’t know”), but we still come back to the original repeating verse / chorus music (“Yesterday…”). Many, many classical…

Chopin Nocturne 15.2

It’s organic, and sounds almost improvised — except that it is impossibly perfect in every detail. Its soundscape is vast, deep, and richly pianistic, but look at the construction and you’ll see the spare elegance of Bach. It has a loving tenderness, and a longing, that’s unlike anything else, yet seems instantly familiar. And it’s gorgeous.

What is it? Chopin, of course!

There’s nothing quite like learning to play a piece of music to really get inside it. With this one, like many I’ve shared here, I knew it was excellent…

Schumann Bunte Blätter 6

I’m just back today from a wonderful, wonderful trip to NYC and New Haven, CT, which was a reminder of just how wonderful family and friendship are. And although I’m really looking forward to sleeping in my own bed (I’ve been up since 5:20 AM Minnesota time), I did manage to edit and master tonight something I’d recorded beforehand for you.

Schumann
Cantrell

As I mentioned last week, I’m working on a set of short pieces, and in that set, I’m thinking constantly of Schumann. He wrote many sets of short…

Bach Sinfonia 5

The first Bach of the blog, one of his sinfonias (also known as three-part inventions). The three parts in this one are not obvious at first: the upper two voice are wonderfully intertwined, and do an intricate little tango together as third voice turns slowly through a cycle of Bach permutations underneath. I love the way it unfolds.

Bach
Cantrell

As I listen to myself play this one, it sounds like I’m still a bit tentative with a new piece — certainly there is room to be more expressive, and more fluid. I am pleased to have worked out the ornaments, though…

Brahms Intermezzo 116.4

Something sweet today: a bit of magic from Brahms.

Brahms
Cantrell

These late Brahms pieces — same with the first recording in this blog — are amazing to me as a composer. They sound lush, but the writing is actually quite spare and elemental. The structures are at once formal and organic, like Bach preludes. And the incredible emotional intimacy, their sense of being so personal, is like no other music I know.

This was the first Brahms I ever learned to play. It looked to me like a relatively…

Chopin Nocturne 55.1

You probably were all wondering when I’d get to some Chopin, no? Well, wonder no longer! Voici!

This piece is a subtle, spare thing, and its spareness makes it much more difficult than it sounds. Listening to this recording again, I think I could play some sections better now; perhaps I’ll record it again in the future. A really fine piece of music is a lifelong exploration, so I’m certainly not opposed to posting new versions of pieces I’ve already recorded! Still, this recording is decent — the idea of the music certainly comes across, and people do seem to enjoy this version.…

Brahms Intermezzo 117.1

To get the recording train rolling, here’s a recording of a lullaby of Brahms, one of my favorites. I made this recording to play with equalization settings, but liked the performance enough to keep it.

It’s a piece Brahms wrote late in life, a lullaby. He included a motto at the top from an old Scottish folk song, which in modern English is roughly:

Sleep, my child, now sweetly sleep
It grieves my heart to see you weep.

Brahms is perhaps the most humane composer I know, most especially in these last piano pieces of his. I’ve…

Brahms
Cantrell